1. Nutritional yeast does not taste like cheese.
Sometimes I feel like the whole vegan internet is playing a massive joke on me. Every day I see a recipe on instagram for a “cheese sauce” that’s just cashews and nutritional yeast, and there are always a hundred comments raving about how it tastes just like the real thing. Friends, I have attempted such recipes, and they’re not good. They certainly don’t taste like cheese.
Don’t get me wrong, I like nutritional yeast. In the right context it can provide a nice savory flavor, and a small amount in pasta sauce slightly resembles the umami of parmesan cheese. But a pile of nutritional yeast on top of your pasta looks, smells, and tastes bad.
I think nutritional yeast is much more similar to soy sauce than to cheese: both have sharp savory flavors that need to be handled carefully. In fact, the two often go great together. Gena’s Lentil Keftedes are to my mind the perfect example of nutritional yeast done right–the sharpness of the yeast is complemented by the soy sauce and balanced by the walnuts and lentils. I also like to add a few teaspoons of both soy sauce and nutritional yeast to Nisha’s Lentil Bolognese for a sauce that’s meaty instead of sweet.
2. Soy milk is the One True Milk.
I’m glad that there are so many milk options available to vegans these days. I’ve had fun trying cashew, almond, coconut, pea, and macadamia milks–what a time to be alive! But I’m sort of baffled that there’s a market for all these things, because soy milk is the best milk replacement far and away.
As far as I understand these things, it’s the best substitute for cow’s milk nutritionally since it has almost the same amount of protein. I guess pea milk has protein too, but at too high a cost–you can definitely taste the protein extract. Soy milk also has a rich texture, comparable to 2%, and is available everywhere–it’s the Schelling point of nondairy milks.
But most of all, soy milk tastes really good. Even unsweetened, unflavored soy milk has a light vanilla flavor that’s perfect in cereal and baked goods. Most of the nut milks I’ve tried have the right texture but a bitter, unpleasant flavor. Oatmeal cooked with almond milk tastes flat and watery.
I will admit two caveats here: one is that soy milk is a bit rich for drinking, depending on what you’re used to. Secondly, soy milk is surprisingly bad in savory dishes like soups or stews, because the sweet/vanilla-y flavor comes through the other ingredients. I like almond milk for drinking (mainly because it’s so widely available) and cashew cream or culinary coconut milk for cooking.
3. Tomatoes are holding you back.
When I first started cooking for myself out of college, everything was tomato-based. My main dinner was marinara sauce with a bunch of veggies in it, and I rarely made a soup or stew without a few cans of crushed or diced tomatoes. It was an easy rut to get stuck in because tomatoey things taste great! I love pasta with red sauce or tomato-based soups.
But tomatoes have the unfortunate tendency to swamp other flavors. Over time I realized I was sick of all my food half-tasting like tomatoes. These days I’m better at using other ingredients to provide flavor and texture. And I’m hesitant to put a tomato anywhere it’s not completely required, because I know that it will take over and make the whole dish taste generic.